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Trump shows how susceptible the Electoral College system is to tampering

One of the weak spots in the system is the vagaries of an old and inadequate federal statute called the Electoral Count Act of 1887.

Former President Donald Trump gesturing during a rally in Conroe, Texas, on January 29.
Former President Donald Trump gesturing during a rally in Conroe, Texas, on January 29.
REUTERS/Go Nakamura

I have inveighed, often and without apparent effect, against our nation’s ridiculous Electoral College system. (If you have time, here’s one from 10 years ago titled “Ten reasons why the Electoral College is a problem,” summarizing many of that system’s inherent flaws.)

But a certain yellow-haired recent ex-president has helped us focus on a few reasons that weren’t on my list. 

The basic problem with the Electoral College is that it enables the popular vote loser to defeat the popular vote winner, a situation that allowed Trump to become president in 2016. The feature that makes this possible has been around from the beginning; Trump in 2016 became the fifth case of a popular vote loser who won because of the vagaries of the Electoral College system (which functions in a way that has little or nothing to do with anything the Framers of the Constitution thought they were doing in 1786-87).

But Trump’s 2020 effort to hijack the presidency for four more years — despite losing both the popular and the electoral vote — have focused attention on how susceptible the Electoral College system is to tampering.

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Trump and his assistant cheaters came up with ways by which a ruthlessly amoral thief could potentially steal an election in which he had lost both the popular vote and the electoral vote. 

I don’t care to take a position on how close they came to pulling it off by various methods — up to and including the violent attempted insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. They failed, at the cost of several lives and hundreds of injuries.

The weak spots in the system that Trump tried to exploit for his coup start with the vagaries of an old and inadequate federal statute called the Electoral Count Act (or ECA) of 1887. That law attempted (successfully, until 2020) to lay out the procedure by which the U.S. House, in the aftermath of Election Day, would formally count the electoral votes.

The 1887 ECA, while stupid and awkward in various ways, had never before been utilized to change the result. With Trump’s support and participation, several co-conspirators came up with a plan that, if it had worked, would have roughly ended America’s status as a democracy. But I don’t blame the ECA itself. Almost all the blame should accrue to Trump and those who came up with the plan to steal the election. 

I would be happy to see the presidential election system more fundamentally reformed. I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for that to happen, but if any good can come of this lethal tragedy I hope it will be in the form of using the events of Jan. 6 to put the issue on the table, and in a prominent place. 

I shouldn’t close without a plug for the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. This is a plan that would ensure that the winner of the national popular vote would win the presidency. Unlike other efforts, it would not require a constitutional amendment. Instead, it would require states comprising an Electoral College majority to join, by state law, a compact pledging to give their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. But the compact takes effect only when enough states have joined to guarantee a majority of electoral votes to the popular vote winner.

So far, the compact has been adopted by 15 states plus the District of Columbia for a combined 195 electoral votes. (It takes 270 electoral votes to win the presidency.)

The compact has passed at least one chamber of legislatures in nine other states, accounting for 88 more electoral votes. Minnesota is in that category. It has passed in the Minnesota House but not the state Senate. If all of those nine states joined the compact, it would deliver 283 electoral votes, enough to ensure the popular vote winner would have the votes to be inaugurated.

If you care to know more, this link will get to you the National Popular Vote website.